tiny holes in shirts

The Inadvertent Symbolism of Aprons

1962-sept-29-joan-nelson-setting-the-table-pittsburgh-pa

An apron-wearing Joan, almost 12, learning the domestic ropes!

In our last blog post we talked about the mysterious “holes” problem—you remember, right? We ruminated about those tiny holes that mysteriously appear on the bottom front of blouses and tee shirts. Maybe it is just one hole, or two holes, maybe a mysterious pattern of multiple small holes—like the crop circles of the apparel world. Where do they come from? Who made them? Well, as we decided in our last post, we are the culprits! We make these tiny holes most of the time by trapping the fabric of our clothes between the edges of counters and the buttons of our jeans. So, the pressing question is—how to avoid them?

Searching the internet yielded some solutions, including a few advocated by domestic maven Jessica Hewitt. You can avoid the holes by adopting one or more of the following simple strategies: wear high heels when you work, wear pants with no buttons, tuck your shirt into your jeans, or wear an apron.

Let’s take each of these in turn. High heels? Let’s just say that this is not an option in our household. In a text exchange about the holes with our middle daughter Kristyn (who also suffers from this mysterious malady), Joan explained that wearing high heels was a solution we had discovered during our inquiries into the topic.

Greg, however, interjected, “I can see you and Mom doing housework in heels…not!!!”

“Yeah ain’t going to happen LOL” was our daughter’s reply.

Pants with no buttons? We just don’t see Joan in pants with an elastic waistband if they aren’t pajamas. Also, Joan is passionate about jeans (in the same way Imelda Marcos was passionate about shoes). Hello, my name is Joan, and I have a denim problem. Her collection of jeans is all one specific brand (Levi’s, yeah you guessed it) and only certain numbers—numbers that have some arcane meaning to her. The collection is curated carefully, let’s put it that way, and has mostly been assembled from “Goodwill Hunting.” Joan looks for the correct size and specific Levi Strauss number (505, 512, 515 or 550, the number she claims as her work jeans).

So, if it is a choice between the jeans and the holes in shirts…well shirts are cheaper, especially those purchased through careful coupon use and Goodwill purchasing.

As to tucking a shirt in? Well, possibly, but Joan has yet to do that and frankly, it’s not her style.

So that leaves aprons—a very sensible solution indeed. Those of us who came of age in the sixties remember a time when mothers and grandmothers routinely did their housework in dresses protected by aprons and sometimes in heels as well. (Those holes were certainly going to be held at bay.) As forty some years have since passed, the practice of wearing aprons has declined—but not entirely disappeared—the apron is not extinct and still roams the American cultural landscape. Food service workers have continued to wear them, and aprons are certainly sported by grillers at outdoor barbecues. Aprons even seem to be making a comeback in American homes, as evidenced by the “retro’ and “vintage” aprons popular on Etsy and Ebay. A variety of aprons are even available now at stores like Kohl’s and Walmart.

For we baby boomers, however, aprons evoke a plethora of mixed emotions. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when we think of the dear women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts—in our lives serving up comfort foods like meatloaf, pot roast, or one of Joan’s childhood favorite dishes “tuna spaghetti.” In our mind’s eye they are wearing aprons—bib aprons, pinafore aprons, and, of course, waist aprons. They are plain and frilly, patterned and plain, and almost always a bright, colorful testimony to the palettes of those decades.

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Christmas 1967: Mom Nelson and Aunts Helen and Evy

Television, newspaper, and magazine advertisements featuring women in aprons sold everything from foods, cleaning products, and detergent to kitchen appliances. We remember fondly our most well-known television “Moms”—June Cleaver in “Leave It To Beaver,” Margaret Anderson on “Father Knows Best,” and Donna Stone in the “Donna Reed Show.” They were the cultural exemplars of apron-wearing domesticity from our long-gone childhood, emulated to greater or lesser degrees of success by our own mothers

As a young girl Joan’s first sewing machine project was to make her own apron. It was a waist style made with pretty blue-flowered material. It had a useful pocket (something many dress pants don’t have!) and a fanciful bric-a-brac trim. She had forgotten about this apron for decades, but in 2005 when we had to sell the home her parents had lived in for almost fifty years, she found the apron nestled comfortably in a box along with her mother’s aprons.

For us, and maybe for you too, that apron is a symbol of a domestic world long gone. It harks back to a time when using a sewing machine was a skill taught only to girls in the family, and an apron was the perfect first sewing project. Naturally, a girl would need to wear it in her own kitchen some day.

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Mother serves…and Father knows best.

For those of us who emerged changed from the sixties, altered in mind and attitude in so many ways, a woman in an apron wasn’t just an avatar of our mothers but also a template for what we were expected to become. This once unobjectionable protector of clothing became a symbol of inequality, a marker of diminished choices and the constraints of domestic identity. A woman’s place was not in the workforce or the boardroom, or even, apropos to this year’s election, in the Oval Office. Her place was in the home: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, with a husband as the sole and undisputed breadwinner for the family.

When Joan left home and left the sixties, she firmly put her apron-wearing days behind her—in a box, with her mother’s aprons. While Greg was in graduate school, Joan worked full-time and came home to a dinner prepared by Greg. When one of Greg’s many apron-wearing aunts found out, she chided Joan gently, “You let him do that?” It was almost unthinkable to one of our parents’ generation for a wife to “let” the husband do the cooking.

Even though economic and family circumstances changed later, and Joan took over cooking responsibilities and major household chores after almost two decades in the workforce—the decision to do so was her choice—made in order to stay home with the children and create a home life that she hopes they now fondly remember. It was not a decision made easily and without misgivings, but one she in no way now regrets. We are certainly aware that this choice is not always available to either partner due to economic or other circumstances.

So, let’s go back to the question at hand. Would Joan wear an apron to prevent those holes? No—probably not, for reasons both fashion-related and intimately entangled in the identity crises of many women of our generation.

Joan, ever practical, simply works in shirts that have already sprouted holes. But maybe, just maybe, as an ironic half-wink to who we were and who we are now, if she is ever in the kitchen with good clothes on, she might, just might, pull out that old bric-a-brac apron—the one that doesn’t have holes in it.

What’s up with those holes in my shirt?

Holes in Joan's tee shirt--just above the bottom hem

Holes in Joan’s tee shirt–just above the bottom hem.

You might know immediately what we’re talking about, or might know someone this minor problem has afflicted. Maybe you haven’t a clue what we’re referring to—if you are clueless, or, as the case may be, “without holes” read on to be edified!

For some time now Joan has noticed tiny holes appearing in the bottom front of many of her shirts. She would see one hole, two holes, maybe a pattern of multiple small holes. We have had cats—sometimes multiple feline friends—for almost our entire married life, so Joan never thought the holes were much of a mystery. Cats have claws. Said be-clawed cats pounce on us, knead on us, and snuggle (often with claws unsheathed) in our laps. Occasional holes in one’s clothing are just a part of the deal—an inter-species tradeoff—when cats are members of your household (see our previous post about our cats https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/constant-and-faithful-companion/). Joan never gave the matter much thought or mentioned it as a matter of interest to anyone.

However, two years ago, after we lost our sweet cat Muffin and became a cat-less household, Joan began to notice that her new (post-Muffin) shirts were continuing to manifest the distinctive little holes. They weren’t random and seemed always to appear in the same area of the shirt: just below her bellybutton on her abdomen, close to where the button of her jeans would lie beneath. Cats were apparently not the problem after all!

This sweet little cat was not the culprit

This sweet little cat was not the culprit!

Curious, she asked Greg about it. He claimed not to have ever had the problem at all; he couldn’t remember ever seeing the kind of holes Joan described on his own clothing. This absence seemed quite strange. We both wear tee shirts and jeans most of the time, and the shirts are pretty much made out of the same material, aren’t they? Why would one member of the family be afflicted, and the other escape this couture calamity?

Now we were faced with a minor, but intriguing mystery. What in heaven’s name was creating those pesky little holes? Joan isn’t one to ignore a burning question (even if a relatively minor one) until it is answered. And if Greg is to have any peace during an information quest, he has to assist in finding a logical explanation.

Further, we found it strange that we had never heard of anyone having this problem while we were growing up. If our mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles had this problem, we certainly didn’t hear of it. Was it possible that the “little hole problem” is a modern-day phenomenon? And if so, why? Or did this happen to our elders, but, absent the internet and its blogs and tweets and posts discussing the mundane inanities of life in great, endless, and unimportant detail, we simply had no way to hear about it?

For instance, could it be moths? We ruled that possibility out immediately. Moths would have affected other items of clothing and fabric, certainly. And many of the affected items were not likely to be attractive to moths—made of synthetics. Not all of Joan’s clothes were affected, and Greg’s clothes showed no holes at all. And moths surely wouldn’t choose just the lower front area of a shirt and leave the rest of the material alone. Our “little holes” weren’t at all likely to be the result of hungry little moths. There was a pattern here—but what was it?

This was also not the culprit...at least not of these holes

This was also not the culprit…at least not the perpetrator of these holes!

Joan resolved to pay close attention to the domestic activities she did during the day in hopes of discovering the source of the problem. Does the old rough wooden laundry cart in the basement catch her tee shirt when she leans over it to retrieve clothes? Do the bobby pins or hair clips on her lap poke a hole or two into her tee shirt fabric when she’s pinning up her hair? Speaking of modern causes, what about working on a laptop? Joan often works on her MacBook Air for hours at a time doing genealogy (an activity that surely benefits from her single-minded pursuit of unanswered questions and trivial mysteries). Could the edge of the laptop bottom be thinning the material in her shirts making them more liable to develop holes? Observation seemed to indicate that none of these innocent possibilities appeared to be the likely culprits. But over time, and with more diligent observation, a couple of telling clues began to emerge.

Clue 1: Joan noticed that the phenomenon occurred only in shirts she worked in around the house. None of her fancy tops, blouses, shirts and chemises, worn for “good occasions,” going out to restaurants, for example, seemed to have developed any holes. The cause of the holes, it seemed, was a domestic one.

Clue 2: Joan started asking members of our family about whether they had noticed little holes in their shirts. Our oldest daughter didn’t notice any holes. Our son didn’t have any. Greg, as we’ve already reported, didn’t exhibit any.

She texted our middle daughter one day: “Random question – do u get small holes in ur tshirts near ur waistline?”

Our daughter’s response was rapid and decisive: “Yes I do!! What is up with that? I always get those holes! I always thought it was the kitties who made the holes.” (Note: our middle daughter has two cats and academically researches feline behavior).

Joan felt a little relieved that she wasn’t the only one after all. “So I’m not crazy! This isn’t happening only to me!” As it turns out (from this small and quite unscientific sample), the height of the shirt-wearer seems to be a significant variable. Greg, our son, and our oldest daughter are all at least five inches to ten inches taller than Joan. But our middle daughter is only about an inch taller. Hmmm…were shorter people somehow more likely to accumulate these holes? We were perhaps onto something here.

When no other useful clues emerged after the height discovery, we decided to let the subject rest a while—but still keep out a watchful eye out for new holes and the conditions under which they might develop. While vacationing in the Shenandoah Mountains with two good friends last summer, we happened to broach the subject over dinner (God knows why!). Turns out our friends were also no strangers to the mystery. Although Dave didn’t have a problem with the little holes, Brenda was, like Joan, a victim. This added some credence to the “height-related” hypothesis.

This was a topic our friends had discussed with some of their own circle of friends, and they suggested that if we googled the problem, we’d probably find lots of explanations. They weren’t kidding! What we found were endless speculations and tentative explanations.

Several online sites noted that material sold in today’s world is cheaper, thinner, and poorer in quality, making holes more frequent. This could support a “modern phenomenon hypothesis.” Maybe the clothes from our younger days—we are after all sixty-something—were simply of better quality. Problem is, that explanation doesn’t really account for why most men and taller women today don’t seem to have the holes.

Some claimed the problem stems from wearing belts. Another theory is that it comes from standing at a kitchen or bathroom sink where you come into contact with cleaning solutions that weaken the fabric of your shirt. Someone suggested a correlation between the appearance of holes and the new HE washing machines that don’t have agitators. On another website one woman claimed that holes only started appearing in her clothes, but those of no other family members, when she moved into a new house with a walk-in closet. Some of these explanations seem unlikely to us. After all, for instance, tall men wear belts and don’t complain of the little holes. It isn’t clear why the absence of an agitator would create holes! One might expect, logically, the reverse. In fact, we still own an agitator machine.

Nope, also not the culprit

Nope, also not the culprit.

We decided to settle on the explanation that fit best with the clues we had already unmasked and well, frankly, made the most sense. Here we have to give credit to Jessica Hewitt, author of a parenthood blog called “Five In Six.” In her post, “Those Tiny Holes at the Bottom of Shirts – The Culprit & The Cure,” Jessica concludes, “The small holes at the bottom of shirts are caused by the shirt repeatedly rubbing between a pants’ button and a hard surface…” You can read her blog for yourself here: http://fiveinsix.com/2014/02/tiny-holes-at-the-bottom-of-shirts.html.

Jessica tested her theory by purchasing a new, hole-free shirt (Jessica bravely took “one for the team on this one”). She wore her new shirt with jeans for four days straight but kept the front of her shirt tucked into her jeans the entire time. Outcome? No worn spots at the bottom of her shirt. No holes!

Jessica’s conclusion matches perfectly with the clues we uncovered. Joan only gets holes in the shirts she wears working around the house. Do the holes appear at the spot where her jean’s button presses against the kitchen counter? She stood against our hard granite kitchen counter, and sure enough, found that her tee shirt’s holes and jean’s button hit the granite at precisely the same place. And this was not the case for Greg, who is quite a bit taller. The height of the jeans/shirt wearer—which is positively correlated with gender in most cases—seems to account for the variability in who is afflicted and who is not. Greg’s jeans button, simply stated, is higher than the counter. No “fabric sandwich” ever happens.

When you wear tops with jeans and come into contact with a hard surface like a kitchen countertop, the fabric becomes sandwiched between the jeans and the hard surface. This causes friction, rubbing the fabric of the top repeatedly against the metal button of the jeans—the result, over time, unnoticed and unbeknownst to the wearer, is a pattern of tiny holes! It can likely be any hard surface: a counter, edge of a desk, or maybe even where a seat belt comes into contact with the shirt material over the jeans button.

The culprit!

The culprit!

Mystery (at least to our satisfaction) solved! But the trick, of course, is figuring out how to prevent getting any more of the pesky little holes. In our next post, we look at some of the solutions—with a generational twist and a nod to the domestic apparel of an earlier age—to this pervasive but, admittedly, trivial problem!